(Written in mid-January as my writing sample for this workshop: http://collegevilleinstitute.org/events/event/broader-public-2017/ )
I am relatively new to protesting. I’ve been to a few protests and rallies before, but I’m white, middle class, and under 40. I will always have more to unearth and examine, to fully understand my privilege. And so it is that the visceral need to act and the threats to take away hard-fought rights and protections of women and minority groups have only become personal for me this political season. What am I going to do about it? I will march in the Women’s March in my state capital this weekend. I will keep calling, e-mailing and writing snail-mail to my elected officials, including those who do not represent my state, but still represent me as a U.S. citizen. I will try to keep having one-on-one conversations with people on the other side of issues. Yet still I wonder, will my protests be effective? I do not intend to protest as personal therapy, although it may indeed be cathartic to do something. I want my protests to be heard and to have an impact. I want to listen to those who have been leading the fight against inequity for a long time, people of color especially. My means of protest need to be authentic to who I am, and relevant to others because of what we have in common. So as I try to shape my own outrage and hurt into some concrete actions, I find myself looking back 500 years to the protester Martin Luther. Since Luther’s core theological principles resonate so strongly with me, perhaps his methods of protesting could be mine as well.
1. Begin with a mindset of debate and dialogue
In 1517 when the monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, he was not trying to start a new church. He was posting his research for public debate. Debate is dialogue, and even in the most heated conversations, opposing sides have to listen to one another and run the risk of being changed. I’m struggling with this, but have tried to read and hear from those who voted for the President-Elect despite his inflammatory personality and hateful rhetoric, without dismissing these voters as bigots. If I cannot at least begin from a posture of listening, what hope do I have that my words will be heard?
2. Respond to the Word; do not just react to others
Luther studied the Bible, and protested because the Church was profiting from people’s fears, not delivering Good News to them. Faith-based protests are more powerful, I believe, the more we frame them with the powerful story of God’s action through Jesus. For example, we do not simply object to an assault on the dignity of people with disabilities or women or Muslim people because it is not “politically correct,” or even because it is not kind. We object because our creation stories describe every human being as being created in the image of God. We object because when we baptize, we echo the God-given identity of beloved children of God spoken to each of us, as at Jesus’ baptism. Of course we are appalled by hate speech. But how much stronger our protests are when we speak with an entire faith tradition behind us!
3. Reading, Writing, Translating
Luther spent a lot of time during those Reformation years reading the Bible, translating it into the vernacular, and writing commentary. The revolutionary thoughts that came from his pen shook the power structure and changed so many people’s lives. Reading life-giving sources allows the convictions I will express to not be about me. I know that I especially need to fill my reading list with authors from marginalized groups, to push my own self-understanding and my place in the continuing struggle for equality. I need to understand more about “intersectionality” from those who live it. Writing and re-reading will allow me the space to process, organize and clarify my reasons for protesting. Journaling or blogging can do the same for anyone. As for “translating,” that’s the work we all must do to make our protests accessible and understandable to others whose experience may be so different from ours it is as if we speak different languages.
4. Standing Firm
Doing the work above, repeatedly, is what I believe will strengthen progressive Protestants to take a stand in the face of threats. When Martin Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor and expected to recant his teachings, he could not. We must cultivate the absolute conviction that people of faith can do nothing other than to stand against bigotry and assaults on the most vulnerable among us. Ultimately we need the firm conviction that “my” protest isn’t about me, but about “us.”